Screenwriter Tommy Murphy shares the intimate process of turning the memoir Holding the Man into an award-winning stage play, and, now, a much-anticipated film.

By Tommy Murphy.

‘Holding the Man’ a labour of love

A scene from 'Holding the Man'
A scene from 'Holding the Man'

I am seated in a re-creation of the Griffin Theatre. Ryan Corr is beside me, costumed as the late Timothy Conigrave, a man I never met but have spent years striving to know. Tim’s voice echoes next to me as Ryan chants a quote from a 1993 oral history recording. Ryan often does this before takes to summon the speech patterns, to conjure the ghosts. “I met this beautiful boy named John and um – the boy with beautiful eyelashes.” We are shooting a moment from Tim’s life for the feature film Holding the Man. This is the scene where Tim attends a production of a play he wrote. I am an extra. The director of the film, Neil Armfield, suggests my role is a fellow playwright who wonders if the play will be a disaster. I suppose this is called method acting.

I first read Tim’s memoir at David Berthold’s urging. David was then artistic director of Griffin, that same theatre company where Tim had made a play. David wondered if Tim’s book could be theatre and whether I might be the writer to adapt it. At 10am on April 18, 2005, I wrote to David with “tears … drying on my face”, describing a compulsion to contact everyone I hold dearly and to love them more. “I think it’s best I just start putting pen to paper and re-read the book immediately. Stop me if that’s not a good idea and hit me with your thoughts pronto”. I did not know this exchange would shape the next 10 years of my working life. A text message from David not long after that: “I just read all the reviews of the book on Amazon. Jesus.” What had he got me into? I was at times “ferociously nervous” as the play took shape. I kept a diary. “Sitting on the steps. Rehearsals begin today. I am early because, I don’t know.”

Eventually, there are almost 1500 pages of my scrawling attempts to resolve the drama within and alongside the project. My journal includes correspondence and various secrets that I will never disclose – probably. It surprises me now how early the cinematic adaptation began to sing out. As we approached rehearsals of the play, I pondered in my journal: “that crucial last sex scene. I tried a few ways. I know the film could do it as intimately and tenderly as the book. Sex is tricky theatrically.”

It is a visit to the Conigrave family home in 2006 that seems to consolidate the ambition. Tim’s parents, Mary-Gert and Dick, “were welcoming, warm, charming livewires. That house was an extraordinary place to be. There’s the sunroom through there. This is the corridor that John snuck through to sleep with Tim. This is the toilet where Tim first ejaculated, the shower where he cried to ‘Dreamer’.” Such is the unguarded detail of Tim’s memoir that grants you access to all areas. “I want to make the film. I can see it.”

If only it were as simple as envisaging it. Others had investigated Holding the Man for the screen but at that time it was dormant. The play gave the prospect new hope. Anna Davison, Tim’s sister and literary executor, received a call from me on World AIDS Day 2006, a coincidence I think. I rang to talk about the film. “I do not know at this stage if a writer is the person who takes out the option alone and how much it will cost.” With an option granted, I set about giving it a go, chasing screenwriting jobs to gain the chops, seeking out collaborators and palming early offers that despite instant financial appeal would have led to the wrong film. All of this was in the hope of rewarding the Conigrave family’s trust. My letters to them from productions of the play in San Francisco, Auckland and across Australia contain promises that the film is creeping into being. The Conigraves joined me to see David Berthold’s production in London in 2010 where “last night was wonderful. A full standing ovation in a West End theatre. Even Joan Plowright stood… albeit slowly.”

 Year after year I echo a message to them: “I am thinking of you on Tim’s Anniversary.” In truth I was thinking of them and Tim every day. “Last night … I had several conversations with Tim. I don’t recall all of them. My emotions were mixed; I was delighted to see Tim and nervous he would resent me. I saw him trying to find the words to express what he was going through. I’d want to tell him what to write because I knew [his book] so well. And then he’d say it and I’d say yes that’s it. We spent time walking around this strange hospital. I remember a covered walkway in a garden. As always happens when I meet Tim and John in dreams, I feel I am begging for their permission.”

Across this span of time many people have contributed to the life of Holding the Man. They include the actors who inhabited the roles on stage and the people who knew Tim, some of whom became actors in the film. Though the film is an adaptation of the book, there were lessons carried over, some moments pinched and insights borrowed. The goodwill for Tim’s book lured people who would enable the film to be made. In 2007 I was told “an investor, Cameron, who has a great deal of enthusiasm for making Holding the Man into a film, is attending our Sydney Opera House preview tomorrow night. I don’t know his surname. He has a strong business background – something to do with a Construction Company. I will meet him.” Cameron Huang walked the red carpet this week as an executive producer of Holding the Man. “Tell me”, I ask Matt Zeremes, an actor in the play who is also a filmmaker, “who are the best film producers in Sydney?” This is on Messenger. “Hmm. You should speak to Rosemary Blight. She’s a friend of mine and Kylie du Fresne.” He tells me they are “awesome”. “Both work for Goalpost Pictures.” “Thanks. I will look into it.” It turns out these producers were already seeking us out and were determined to make a distinctive film that would be fuelled by Conigrave’s frankness, his wit and sexiness.

We needed to be unanimous on a director to match the mission. “Thanks Kylie. I happened to speak to Neil last night at the theatre. He is off to England and then Houston today. He’s always very busy. It’s a shame. I think Neil is an excellent choice. Where do we go from here?” “Yes, it is a great shame as I agree he felt just right. If we were to wait, I worry about a project losing momentum just at the point where it has started to gain it.” We nabbed Neil in 2012 and the patience paid off. Three years before production would begin, Neil Armfield and I got busy on yet another draft. With script editor, Keith Thompson, we mapped every possible path and allowed ourselves to get lost and then find where the film wanted us to be. I can trace the moment we cracked the screenplay. I was waiting to board a plane to Melbourne with Kylie where Neil was directing Wagner’s epic, The Ring Cycle. Neil had one day off. I had one purpose. “I also want to propose a revised structure.” It was a discarded arrangement that I always hoped would win out. A love story in the time of AIDS could have a certain charmless predictability. Our audience could sit in anticipation for an epidemic that no one saw coming. I proposed a way to jolt them into sharing the shock of our characters. Neil and Kylie leapt at it.

Working in the arts affords a deep connection with our colleagues. Our tasks are necessarily exposing. Our workplaces are personal. We share potholes, sometimes chasms, of uncertainty on the road to conviction. It is clear looking back that I developed something of a talent-crush on Neil Armfield. It’s clear in my account of that 1am session, at his kitchen table, when his mind should have been on how to get from Nibelung dwarf to the destruction of Valhalla. Work for Neil is investigative and it never ceases. David Hare says some directors are salesmen but Armfield is a detective. “From Neil: If HOLDING THE MAN is going to work as well as we think it can, it will be from its particularity and sense of specific reality.”

In February 2014, I write to the Conigraves. “I have good news – at last! We have been green-lit by Screen Australia. We are now scheduled for production later this year. It’s going to happen. The timing is now in the expert hands of our producer, Kylie du Fresne. She is one of the brilliant women behind The Sapphires. She’s staged a war so I’m glad it’s her securing cast and locations and everything else that goes into this mammoth undertaking.”

As production approached, I tinkered with the script to match the realities and scale of what we were making. “One of my first tasks in adapting the play [in 2005] was to chart the dates and events of the story. It dawned on me: these guys were 25 when they were diagnosed. It was my age at the time. The thought terrified me. We have finished the shooting script today and as it is my birthday tomorrow I am about to outlive Tim.”

It is during pre-production that I observe the different rhythms for the writer from the rest of the team. I believe I can see the finish line. Everyone else is waiting for the starter’s gun. “I was in Neil’s elevator early Tuesday heading to [location] and I thought to myself I may be the happiest I’ve ever been.” I share this with executive producer Cameron, the angel investor who has been so patient. He tells me on his first set visit, “It has always been words on paper until this moment – contracts, scripts, budgets.” He was clearly delighted to see a full production office, film trucks on the street, racks of costumes. It was a real moment for him, seeing what the money is spent on – employment and equipment. I even find a thrill in being handed the most bureaucratic of documents – the schedule. “It reminds me that this film is actually happening, that experts have assembled in an office in South Melbourne to make, what has been planned for six years, come to fruition”. Cameras roll and I note, “Rushes exquisite. I now know what not to worry about.” There is a problem, a crisis I am told, because our film still does not fit in the schedule. For me this is delicious because it means there’s more writing to be done. “It’s always about distilling the story,” I noted. And so it is in the edit suite where Dany Cooper’s craftiness appears to me extremely writerly. Screenwriting, particularly for an adaptation, is about making a selection. The screenplay goes through a rainbow of various coloured amendments from “buff” to made-up colours such as “baby poo” and finally, to amuse myself, “bruised cherry”. Then the cut goes from three hours to a length where I don’t almost pee myself enduring it. All of it buoys me along. “Every time Neil or Kylie phone me, I light up with my phone: ‘More work!’ ‘A problem to solve!’ ‘Yes!’ I think, ‘I don’t have to say goodbye to this just yet.’ ”

Holding the Man arrives on screens after a steady incubation. If we made it any sooner, it would have been too soon. As fortune would have it, it arrives at a moment when it matters to tell a story like this – a story of two men married by the love they had for each other.

Eight years to the week before Holding the Man’s premiere, I noted the following: “It is 9.30am. I have just typed these words with Supertramp’s ‘Dreamer’ blaring: HOLDING THE MAN a film First Draft. Better get going before my coffee wears off and I think about how long it takes to make a film in this country.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Labour of love".

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Tommy Murphy is a playwright and screenwriter.

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